From ‘The Passion of the Christ’ to ‘Barbie.’ When did People Stop Behaving Themselves in Movie Theaters? – The Stream

“Do people actually stay quiet?”

That was the question I used to get all the time. It was the 1980s, I was in college and working at the Bethesda Cinema ’n’ Drafthouse just outside D.C. The Drafthouse had begun as the Boro, a beautiful Art Deco movie space designed in 1938 by “Dean of American Theatre Architects,” John Eberson. In the early 80s, the Boro was transformed into the Cinema ’n’ Drafthouse, the interior reconfigured with tables and in the back a bar and a kitchen that served pub food. It was a precursor to the today’s Alamo Drafthouse.

We offered “second run” movies, or films that were no longer in theaters but had not yet come out on VHS. Several hundred people each weekend would pass through to see Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop or Revenge of the Nerds.

And, yes, people stayed quiet.

For the first fifteen minutes or so the bar, where I worked, would be slammed, and waitresses would be scurrying all over the place taking orders, pizzas and chicken wings flying out of the kitchen. Then, silence.

We’ve Forgotten How to Sit Still

This kind of self-restraint and respect for the movie-going experience may not be possible anymore in America. As the Washington Post reports:

‘Barbenheimer’ — the twin release of blockbusters Barbie and Oppenheimer — may have broken box office records and brought people out to the theaters in droves, but it also highlighted a very real problem: Some people seem to have forgotten how to go to the movies, with widespread reports of drunken outbursts, rampant cellphone use and exhibitionism.

One patron, a man, attended Barbie without clothes on: “One of the security guards was saying to the guy, ‘Dude, you cannot be naked in here,’” [a witness] recalled. “The guy was all confused and upset that he couldn’t be naked in the theater . . . he was getting all worked up.”

People might argue that Barbie is an “event” movie, one that encourages people to get dressed in pink and act out. Yet twenty years ago, The Passion of the Christ was a hugely controversial movie that was the focus of huge media attention. It would seem ripe for public displays of emotion. Yet at the screening I went to in Washington, the only sound was the two women in the row in front of me gently crying.

Shrunken People with Loud Voices

Our narcissism has infected our politics and our television … why not our cinemas? We are not a nation of strong-willed egoists, but fit-pitching babies. In his seminal 1979 work, The Culture of Narcissism, the brilliant social scientist Christopher Lasch argued that the human personality, its psychology itself, had changed over the course of the later 20th century.

Americans had been transformed from strong, religious and well-adjusted people into those showing a “minimal” self: a personality that is weak, childish and dependent on government, corporations, radical politics, loveless sex and bureaucracies for a sense of meaning. It’s why Barbie is a cipher who fills her empty soul with feminism and resentment.

Such bad behavior is everywhere:

  • The college kids literally screaming when faced with a speaker they don’t like.
  • Transgender people bellowing that their truth is all that matters.
  • The you-go-girl amateur psychologists helping mentally wobbly people to demand respect even if they haven’t earned it.

These aren’t the old communists with their grandiose pseudoscience. These are babies with no secure sense of self, throwing tantrums.

No Refuge from the Crybullies

It’s heartbreaking that this virus has infected movie theaters, which have always been sacred spaces to me. I still remember bartending at the Drafthouse and seeing Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers’ first film, as well as Back to School, Top Gun, Blue Velvet, Broadcast News, Aliens, Little Shop of Horrors, Harold and Maude, To Live and Die in L.A., and Big Trouble in Little China, among others.

Like a monk in prayer, I gingerly walked around the wagon wheel-sized platters where the film spun out in the projector booth (really more of a large room), and once mounted a new marquee that only required two letters: F/X – a cool (and now forgotten) thriller. It’s also where I witnessed a film actually snap during a showing: American Anthem, the cheesy 1986 vehicle for gymnast Mitch Gaylord. When the film broke, the screen flickering then going blank, the audience actually applauded.

These weren’t just movies, they were a healing art. In her 2018 poetry collection 4:30 Movie, Donna Masini explores two different themes: the illness of her sister Karen, who died from cancer in 2014, and how escaping to the movies provided Masini relief of the loss. I have never come across anything that captures the spiritual immersion and restorative magic of going to a movie as well as her poem, “The Lights Go Down at the Angelika.” Here are a few lines that say it all:

and you press into the dark, imagine

the stranger two rows back, that fragile

chance you’ll forget in the second trailer.

Now it’s quiet, still

this burden of being watcher and screen

and what floats across it–light pouring out

its time and necklines and train wrecks.

Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C. His new book is The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs the New American Stasi.

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